Monday, November 30, 2020

Pedagogy of the Depressed



When I thought of the title for my next book, I figured that it
must have been done already. It was too obvious: a contemporary pun on Paulo Freire’s revolutionary treatise Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but for now—when so many are so depressed, for a variety of reasons. So I Googled it, and was surprised to find that no one else had used this title for a book. (There were some articles that bore the name, but they were mostly buried in obscure academic journals.) 

I had been writing essays about various challenges in the 21st century English classroom, and I figured I could bundle a bunch of these pieces together under this title and make it a timely and maybe even useful book. My endlessly supportive editor Haaris Naqvi at Bloomsbury liked the idea, so I dove in. It worked, for a while: I assembled a draft with interlaced themes of classroom, culture, and community.

I was writing about the insinuation of new technologies in the classroom, from personal smartphones to institutionally adopted learning management systems. I was writing about trigger warnings, increasingly pervasive and layered mental health issues on campus, and how intellectual inquiry was turning into mere data collection. I was writing about my home town of New Orleans, and how my particular institution was adjusting to new modes of learning delivery while staying on mission. This was all under the looming shadow of the Trump presidency and on the eroding landscape of higher education across the United States. 

But this was before the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything changed so rapidly and all these facets took on new wrinkles and contortions. So I scrapped the manuscript I had been working on, and I decided to write this book from scratch, in real time as I taught through the pandemic year of 2020 and as I attempted to find my bearings in this new world. In truth, a lot of things that were nascent before the pandemic just found their way out in the open, as our new normal set in. I've revised some of the earlier pieces, which has been an exercise in humility and recalibration.

I'm finishing this book now, with new leadership in the offing and as the current pandemic looks —maybe, with any luck—to be winding down, even as there are many difficult months ahead. I'm writing about the unexpected highs of teaching and the new lowest lows. I'm writing as I teach, and as I myself adjust to my job feeling profoundly different, to conditions that I was never trained for—but which weirdly feel like extensions of things I've been reading and thinking about for a long time. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Hygiene Class (& other speculations)

Hygiene Class starts with Hygiene Air...

I had a good chat with travel writer Andrew Nelson about the future of flight, for a listicle he did for the Wall Street Journal. I have a bit in the piece, but here's the longer back & forth...

Andrew: 

I'm wondering if you have a take on how we will feel about air travel, what it might mean to us to fly and how or what we might take with us on a flight that will be new, changed and maybe what might be the same? Will there be a "safe" class of  travel with extra hygienic flourishes as opposed to just business or economy? I encourage you to be speculative. 

Me: 

Four ideas to start with.

1) Fragility. To me one of the most profound things that has happened over the past six months is that travelers have been confronted with the baseline fragility of flight: something as tiny as a virus can set off a ripple effect that can ground flights around the world. The coronavirus has ruptured public confidence in the assumed ease and accessibility of air travel. In the 15 years or so since 9/11, there was a sort of unshakable confidence in the constant growth and lowered costs of commercial flight. Now, other factors in addition to public heath crises—increasingly erratic weather patterns linked to anthropogenic climate change; economic turmoil; geopolitical events—are more acutely positioned to quickly disrupt air travel on a mass scale (should it return at all). 

2) Stress & fear. As airlines attempt to refill planes, the stresses of flying will reach a fever pitch—counterproductively dissuading people from flying. The safety protocols in the wake of COVID-19 will make the post-9/11 security checkpoint seem quaint. Likewise, public health awareness and cleanliness (or the lack thereof) on airplanes will rapidly erode the relatively laissez-faire experience of personal space that travelers had become used to. (For so long it was about my armrest, my setback tray table, my leg room, my miles & points, etc.) Whereas air travel was seen since the Golden Age of flight as luxurious and something of a goal for ordinary people (if not part of their workaday lives), it may well become something that people avoid, and are even afraid of—because of perceived risk factors in addition to the increased stressors of flying. 

3) Inequalities. Wealth gaps within the airport and on the airplane will potentially be exacerbated. As you suggest, we could see grimier parts of the airport/airplane—where economy class travelers exist—and then cleaner parts where First Class and Business Class travelers exist. In a way this division had been happening gradually for a long time, but with fears and risks of infection and contagion, such divisions could be pronounced. (And if this sounds like something out of a Black Mirror episode, it should!) 

4) Cuts. Airlines are going to cut way back. I just heard this morning that 1800 experienced Delta pilots recently took a buy-out package. (And I’m quite sure that 1800 new Delta pilots are not being hired and trained, at the moment.) Major airlines will shrink and there will quite probably be mergers and absorptions. Aircraft manufacturing will also contract. Airlines and aircraft and jet engine manufacturers had for years projected multiple decades of steady growth; the current jolt will likely have a decades-long negative impact on these industries. Everyday travelers, such as they still exist, will feel these contractions in multiple small and big ways, from the eliminations of flights to certain airports, to fewer newer planes, to a decrease in amenities on board. 

Andrew:  

Let's tease this out even more.
  • "Hygienic Class"—will people pay extra for a new class of seat and seating area with extra high filtration ventilation restricted to their part of the plane? Or will we see extra-hygienic flights—planes with fewer people but costing more, removing the middle row permanently or putting everyone in their own filtered pod, like a sleeper car on an old train?
  • Will there be nostalgia expressed for the "golden days" of flying? Perhaps hit movies or sentimental songs about this era when anyone could get up, go and fly without fear? Could we see a spate of longing, cultural manifestations in song, Netflix streamers, movies? If so, what brand might be the Pan Am of our recently lost age? Virgin? Jet Blue?—certainly not United or American ... hah. Play casting director. Who might star in a 2026 Rom Com about air travel circa 2016?
  • Because hub and spoke exposes us to more hassle will we opt for more direct flights?
  • Will refurbished planes (because so many orders are cancelled) be the wave of the future—what could that design look like?
Me: 
  • Would-be passengers will definitely pay extra for the illusion of hygiene and safety—and airlines and airports are already supplying these illusions (as well as the real thing, of course). But the question is what will happen as people become less trusting and more suspicious of things like high filtration, extra cleaning measures, etc. I think the reality is that people’s safe ‘pods’ are going to be what’s at home. As long as pandemics are on people’s minds, anything seen as a germ-sponge is going to be suspect—no matter how much the image is cleansed, no matter the new technologies touted. Regardless of the level of filtration and the cleanings between flights, it’s really hard to glorify the crammed long metal tube with wings, these days. 
  • There will probably be some nostalgia for the Golden Age of flight. But there may also be a sense of “How were we that stupid to think we could do that, on such a scale?!?” And it’s from such a latter sense that we might learn something, and work toward better modes of mass transit and global migration. I think actually the brand we might long for the most is Southwest: that airline was simultaneously the nadir of commercial flight (for sneering elite fliers) and its apotheosis, as the world’s largest low-cost carrier. But Southwest's convivial ethos and cattle-car boarding procedures seem destined to the dustbin of history. Southwest will no doubt survive the current downturn (it has, in many ways, the smartest business model, with its sole 737s and low-fare logic), but I don’t think it will ever be the same. The imaginary movie you’re suggesting makes me think of that 2004 film The View from the Top, staring Gwyneth Paltrow—the first post-9/11 film to jovially revisit commercial flight, and really fascinating for the ways it did so. What will the comparable film be for us, in a few years, reflecting on the last several years of flight? Actually, what if we imagined this to be a Pixar airport-themed film, for the Covid-generation kids who never got to know commercial flight, or only remember it vaguely, and for their parents who remember it with a hint of nostalgia such as you mentioned above? That would be an interesting movie idea to play out, six years from now… 
  • Yes, smaller airports are going to be under pressure with fewer flights, and people will likely start driving to destinations from major airports, again. The real scrum is going to involve what smaller airports survive, and how. Just look at the new New Orleans airport to see this crisis playing out in real time: after several months of boom, a massive drop in flights with no big boom back on the horizon anytime soon. Nola.com reported just a couple days ago on the airport having to slash jobs at the new airport. Southwest is cutting flights from MSY. This situation will play out at other small to mid-size airports that were banking on growth—only to be looking down the barrel of the pandemic, now. 
  • This is a really interesting question. Especially to think about with regard to the many many grounded Boeing 737 MAX planes—brand new, but still with a very questionable future! What could be done with them, if they never fly? Refurbished planes will almost certainly be used more and more. In fact, while I don’t have data to back this up yet, I’ll bet that the airplane scrap yards (like in Arizona) where commercial airliners are stored are going to see an uptick in business as airlines try to scrounge to keep fleets alive while spending minimally. (This may not sound very comforting to aspiring fliers!) Aircraft interiors can be spruced up so that planes appear ‘new’ from the inside—but the airliners themselves might be fairly old. In some ways the 88 Boeing 717s—converted from Air Tran (after being absorbed by Southwest) to Delta in 2013—show how this might work, especially as mergers happen in the coming years. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Perpetual flight, and then...

Believe it or not, this is what 80% FEWER flights in the air over the U.S. looks like (30 April 2020)


I've been writing about the status of air travel leading right up to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then reflecting on the fallout since. 

On this subject last spring, I was quoted in a Vox piece, and took part in a Slate Future Tense conversation

A collection of my writings on this topic will be published as a short book in Minnesota's Forerunners series: it's called Grounded: Perpetual Flight . . . and then the Pandemic 


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Further Reflections on the Flying V


(c) Justus Benad

For Slate's Future Tense column I wrote about a concept airplane called the "Flying V." This is the idea of a new airliner that will be more fuel efficient; it is optimistically predicted to be in commercial service in two or three decades.

One "teaser" video showed the plane already pulled up to a jet bridge, and a worker ambling around the landing gear. This image makes the whole thing so remarkably mundane as if to suggest that it could happen tomorrow, if not already today.

KLM

I remain skeptical. I think think the airplane is about speculating on a future that will look—more or less—just like the present. The different shape of the airplane is a token gesture toward as-if radical change. The engineering is admirable, and the design is svelte and appealing.

I made a mistake in my piece, assuming there would be window seats along the inner walls of each arm of the V fuselage (at least in the back sections). Yet sketches and diagrams of the airliner show the inside seats to be placed next to a sheer wall (inside which maybe electronics, fuel, cargo?), rather than having their own inner-facing windows. The thought of sitting against a wall for three or six nine hours strikes me as no less uncanny, though, than the specter of looking out across the sky at a twin window-seat-mate. (If this plan develops, perhaps there could be dimmable ceiling windows, for those passengers located in the far darkness of the fuselage?)

But this mistake got me thinking.

Look at those seats in the above diagram: They are diagonally angled in relation to the center of the plane. This means that when the plane takes off, you wouldn't feel the ordinary push backward against your seat; instead, you'd feel a strange aslant pull toward the axis. I'm sure we would adjust, and over time this sideways-and-back feeling would become synonymous with flight—but still, the adjustment seems somehow significant. As one twitter follower pointed out, this also means that economic classes would be oriented around who was closer and farther from the roll axis of the plane, making poorer passengers experience more nauseating bodily tilting as the plane turns.

What about emergency exits? Are we really to believe that entire rows of six passengers are going to file through exit doors on only one side of the plane (one side for each 'wing')? This seems unlikely to pass safety approvals.

Also, consider boarding. In the above mockup, all passengers are conceivably enplaning through that single jet bridge. But then look again at the seat chart in the diagram. It seems to me that boarding this type of plane from a single jet bridge would be awkward at best, and a logistical nightmare at worst. Yet if two jet bridges per Flying V are needed, that is a signifiant infrastructural shift to ask of airports: It effectively means two discrete, coordinated boarding areas for each flight, guiding passengers down two different jet bridges to board the two 'wings' of the plane.

I realize I'm getting in the weeds here. And I'm using this metaphor intentionally: Weeds. This plane is, in so many ways, about realities on the ground, now—realities that we don't really want to face. A warming planet. Flooding coasts. Intensifying storms.

The following still image is from engineer Justus Benad's website, where the diagram above also came from:

(c) Justus Benad

In a video montage, a couple people (presumably one of them Benad) walk up a hill in order to demonstrate a model of the Flying V. They launch the plane, and it soars beautifully. What interests me about this presentation is the pastoral scene. The rolling field, the forested background. So much of this speculative airplane is about connecting with, or recovering, a better Earth. And my strong sense is that large-scale air travel is not the way to achieve something like equilibrium between our species and the rest of the planet, even air travel that promises 20% greater fuel efficiency. The Anthropocene requires a jolt to our current modes of movement and habitation—not just a tweak, no matter how aesthetically captivating it may appear.



Monday, April 8, 2019

Searching for the Anthropocene


My new book Searching for the Anthropocene pursues an elusive yet crushing subject: the current geologic era defined by human impact on the planet, and what it feels like become aware of this concept. 

Ranging from beech forests and beach fossils to jet engines and airport renovations, from snacks and snipers to fantasies of space travel and nightmares of cars on the streets, this book develops a wide-angle approach to environmental awareness. Blending personal narrative, cultural criticism, and environmental theory, Searching for the Anthropocene offers fresh ways to ponder current conditions of ecological urgency, existential crisis, and social unrest.

The two parts of my book make an awkward, asymmetric pair: my home region of northern Michigan, and the expansive, dispersed, and non-local realm of air travel. 

The cover image comes from a series of photographs I took when I was up in Michigan during the winter of 2016-2017, when I would take long walks on the frigid beach and pick up whatever trash I would find, and then afterward take pictures of each day's haul. Here's another one from that same time: 



Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Life in the Late Anthropocene

TWA ad, 1952

I wrote about being accosted in my own home, for Popula. And I wrote about the organizational trope of "the 30,000-foot view," for Real Life.

These pieces might be the first glimmers of a new project...

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Perspectives on the (New) New Orleans Airport

Seeing the new MSY on takeoff... 

I've written a couple more pieces at the crossroads of the old and new Louis Armstrong International.

One, for Popula, about looking for water in the Anthropocene.

A second, for our local newspaper The Advocate, in which I try to counterbalance the more snide criticisms of this new airport in progress.

There's something about this hinge point that endlessly fascinates me: so much energy and precision funneled into the creation of the new terminal, while the managed chaos and ramshackle operations of ordinary air travel—gritty and indecorous—proceed every day, across the runway.

Normal air travel at the old MSY.




Monday, November 5, 2018

Nature Writing

Untitled, (c) Roger Hiorns 

This coming May I am teaching an intensive two-week seminar at Loyola on Nature Writing. I'm planning this course as I finish my new book, Searching for the Anthropocene. One of the strange things about thinking with the Anthropocene is that, as Bruno Latour and many others have pointed out, the terms 'Nature' and 'Culture' no longer hold up as distinct, discrete categories. Nature constantly collapses into Culture, and Culture turns out to be shot through with Nature. Is there even a 'subject' in this class, if we can't look at trees or birds and simply categorize them Nature? Or if we look down at ourselves, our own hands typing these very words on a weirdly illuminated metal and plastic box, and find ourselves unable to identify this operation as indisputably Culture? (An eyelash is lodged between the T and the Y keys; a minuscule insect is bumping against the glowing screen.) Latour calls this all Nature/Culture, but for this class we're going to linger on the 'Nature' side of this combine, and agitate it.

Nature Writing of course has long and fascinating literary traditions, and in my class we'll read some of the foundational texts, practice the forms & styles, and learn to identify the aesthetic trends and tricks that come from this archive. But then we'll also complicate this whole genre, and push ourselves to wonder what Nature Writing even is, once we've admitted the problem of the Anthropocene—a problem which implicates us and infiltrates the cracks of things at every turn.

Loyola's new May-term is a perfect space–time for experimenting with this topic. I plan to teach Nature Writing as a concentrated two-week course in the following format: We will spend the first week close reading and discussing a range of texts that provide students a basis in environmental literature and aesthetics, as well as in ecological thought. In that first week students will give presentations on the readings, by way of grasping the contours of these traditions and concepts. Students will also experiment with pithy forms of writing to try out, in their own words, what we are studying. We will then treat the second week as a workshop in which we travel to different locations around New Orleans and practice Nature Writing and eco-criticism: observing and documenting various landscapes and ecosystems while writing about the places we visit, along one dirty coast in the anthropocene. Destinations for the second week may include Audubon Park, The Fly (Mississippi River), City Park, Mid-City (the urban landscape), Louis Armstrong airport (urban liminal space), and possibly Jean Lafitte National Park. By the end of the second week, the students will have finished and pitched their work (creative or critical) to public venues for potential publication. As a Creative Arts & Cultures course, the course will be of use to students in need of a core requirement, but it will also be useful for English majors and minors, as well as for Environment Program majors and minors.




Friday, October 19, 2018

Welcome to the Airport of the Real

Early architectural rendering of the new MSY

I wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the new airport under construction in my hometown. The new terminal is intended to be a "world class" structure.

I started writing this piece to better understand how the new airport would balance our uniquely local vibe with the more generic demands that commercial flight requires. But the article evolved into something quite different: an inquiry into how airports—and new airport construction projects, specifically—need to be thought about alongside the effects of climate change.

The day the piece was published, a reporter from a local TV station contacted me and asked me a bunch of great questions about this topic, a topic that gets easily hyperbolic and misunderstood. I've been mulling over several of the reporter's queries that really demand a bit more explanation. So here are some follow-up questions to the piece, and my further thoughts on the matter:

Do I think it was a bad idea to spend $1 billion on this new airport?

No, I don't think it was a bad idea at all. It will most likely be a great airport, when it opens. I'm excited to use it. (Of course, it will probably have some early hiccups—don't expect it to be perfect.) Then, after a few months, travelers will simply use the airport, and gradually forget that it was ever new. I think it was a good idea that we didn't spend $5 billion or $10 billion on a big showy architectural spectacle—even if it might have looked cooler. One of the points of my piece is that maybe a world-class airport for today should be modest—and as much as $1 billion sounds like (and is) a lot of money, it's also not nearly as much as it could be for a new airport. (Even the sparkling hotel in the above sketch was scotched from the final plan.)

A lot of cities are undergoing airport renovations and are similarly threatened by rising sea levels. What makes New Orleans different? 

Climate change doesn't set New Orleans apart from all these other places—it connects us all more intimately and urgently. No city can make urban planning decisions as if they are isolated from the rest of the globe. What's different, perhaps, about New Orleans is that the city has experienced devastating storms and the effects of poor planning and drawn-out recovery, so we have all the more reason to be upfront, honest, and proactive about the likelihood of future disaster as we continue to build and live in this city that so many of us love. My piece ended up being nudged along by the nagging question of what it would even mean to build a new airport with climate change at the forefront of planning and construction. (And this is very much an open question.)

What advice would I give to the leaders involved in the new airport construction?

Perhaps there could be informational signage in the new terminal about rising sea levels, coastal erosion, or climate change. I know this seems counterintuitive to the promotional tenor expected within airports—but then, really, is it so different from the ad spots for the WWII Museum, just directed toward the future instead of the past? We could use the airport as a place for education and contemplation of how the world is changing around us, and how humans are implicated in these changes (whether or not we believe it). The word 'world' in "world class" airport might be something to take seriously as a topic to discuss, a dynamic thing not to be taken for granted or accepted as a given. In other words, our world class airport might offer an opportunity to reflect on the actual world, our temporary and fragile home.


the real new MSY, emerging from the swamp


*

I've also wanted to post a link to something else that came out recently, and now I will—because it's related. Here is a piece at Sierra that I wrote along with three of my wonderful students, in which we reflect together on our Environmental Theory course of Fall 2017.

Climate change is not just a trendy topic or an abstract concern. It's a vital issue that a lot of my students are earnestly thinking about as they consider their futures. So I feel like it's part of my duty to teach and write with the realities of our world in mind, for the generations ahead that will live on this planet and hopefully learn to better coexist with the myriad other species and things that dwell here with us.




Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Jami Attenberg twitter essay

I taught this twitter thread in my "Writing the Short Essay" workshop at Loyola: 


(My student Ryan Mayer's marked up class handout.)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Projects unfinished, finished



During my sabbatical year up in Michigan I collected shotgun shells off the bottoms of some of my favorite lakes in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. As I waded these shorelines fly fishing, I gathered dozens of the plastic and metal cylindrical amalgams in varying colors: red and green 12-gauge, yellow and blue 20-guage, darker red 4.10s…even the improbably thick 10-gauge shell, black—remnants of massive firepower expended on waterfowl, the casings then left to decompose at a hyper-objective rate.


I was vaguely planning to create some sort of art piece out of these spent shells, something that would reflect on waste and gun culture while also turning this detritus of hunting into something surprising, even something weirdly aesthetic. But I could never quite get it together. The shotgun shells kept accumulating, and each time I harvested a batch I got more depressed about them. Not just about how they were cast off and left, littering the shorelines and swaying in the shallows—that was part of it—but also about how they acted as small yet vivid reminders of a more embroiled and ugly knot in contemporary U.S. culture: the perceived right to bear arms, the shootings and murders that inevitably occur every month or so, and our seemingly futile ability to address this issue in any measured or meaningful way.

I did finish other projects that year, though. I finished my book Airportness, and also put together my new book The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth, which publishes this week.


In this book I brought together a bunch of pieces I'd written about teaching literature over the years, and I framed these essays with new material that I wrote while up in Michigan. You can read an excerpt from this book at the Paris Review, and another one at Literary Hub. I answered some questions about the book for Inside Higher Ed, and I wrote a post about the book for the Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog.

These are strange and gloomy times for those of us in the humanities and language studies. So much potential for thoughtful intervention, redress, and creativity—and so much flagrant scorning of what we do, from various sectors both in and outside the academy. I hope that readers find solidarity in my new book, and maybe even a modicum of inspiration to keep doing this work. I talk to my students a lot about the importance of finishing projects, but also about letting some projects go unfinished, allowing projects to get rejected or passed over, too. I find that having multiple, overlapping (if sometimes fuzzily related) projects at any given moment helps me actually finish some things. Then, the other things can slide off into the murk of memory and time.






Monday, February 26, 2018

Deliverables


“Let’s work really hard today—your parents are eager for deliverables.” 

I couldn't believe it when I saw this Edward Koren cartoon, which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Koren’s illustration shows circular tables of little kids working on various projects with scissors, glue, papers, and tape. The teacher, towering overhead, urges them on, calling for “deliverables.” Impersonal business-speak in the kindergarten classroom! Gross!

The problem is that if you’ve read Malcolm Harris’s new book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, or even if you’ve just been around a lower school classroom recently, the joke falls flat. The picture is all too real. And it doesn't stop at lower school. I wrote a review essay about Harris's terrific book for Public Books.

I've also been reading Nicholson Baker's amazing Substitute, which is eerily akin to Kids These Days. I say "also reading" because it's a serious slog: over 700 pages, recounting around thirty days of working as a substitute teacher in a public school system in Maine—each day meticulously, Bakerly detailed. It's fascinating and disturbing, with iPads becoming an increasingly ominous minor character as the book unfolds.

Speaking of deliverables, but hopefully not the gross kind, we're about to publish four new books in the Object Lessons series—Luggage, Souvenir, Rust, and Burger—bringing us up to 35 since we published our first four volumes in January 2015. I wrote a conversation essay with two of our recent authors, Anna Leahy (Tumor) and Susan Harlan (Luggage), about what it's like to write (and edit) these slim books. The piece is up at the Essay Daily.

I also wrote a piece on jet engines for our series, at The Atlantic. This piece was thrilling to write, on the heels of one of our NEH workshops and on a high from the scintillating energy of our participants and The Atlantic boardroom, where we held the event.

Some of my recent essays and other spurs are starting to converge around a new book idea, a book I'm thinking of calling Future Proof: Anthropocene Remains. I can feel it taking shape...it's coming together in my mind....

Friday, February 2, 2018

Advance praise for The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth


The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth captures the essence of what it is like to experience the wildness of the 21st century as an observant, thinking human. The banalities of everyday life mix here with the political urgencies and mediatic confusion of our age. Schaberg has sketched a convincing portrait of this unsettling moment.”

—Christy Wampole, Associate Professor of French, Princeton University, USA, and author of Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor


“In this book Christopher Schaberg asks us to consider the work of literature not so much as an antidote to ‘post-truth’ political culture in the USA as an alternative way of life. Here literature figures as lively engagement with the world, a practice of enthusiasm and commitment.

—Stephanie LeMenager, Barbara and Carlisle Moore Distinguished Professor in English and American Literature, University of Oregon, and author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century


“This rapidly cascading kaleidoscope of lovely readings and thoughts about reading, by the generous and imaginatively mercurial Christopher Schaberg, amounts to a guidebook for the significance of the Humanities in visualizing different futures.”

—Timothy Morton, Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English, Rice University, and author of Humankind


Publishing this coming July! Pre-order today.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Fly Tying and Building for Flight

a deceiver I tied last spring

I wrote about tying flies in an age of unraveling, for Sierra magazine. My chapter in the new book Veer Ecology elaborates on my obsession with fishing. It has been strange and challenging, but also fun, to write about something that is so close to me, personally—something I've had and done since I was a kid, but which has always felt somewhat distant from my more scholarly interests (whatever that means).

I also wrote about teaching a weird piece of airport futurism, for 3:AM Magazine. As I've been traveling to our NEH Institute workshops over this academic year, I've been watching the new New Orleans airport emerge from the swamp. I hope to learn more about this edifice under construction, and perhaps even take my students out there and get a tour of the project in process, this coming semester or maybe next fall. For now, it exists as an eerie sideshow each time my planes taxi out to the runway, a glimpse of the as yet unrealized future, right before takeoff.

the new New Orleans airport underway







Monday, October 9, 2017

Bumper Stickers

Sometimes in my classes we talk about bumper stickers. What does every bumper sticker say, no matter what it actually says? It says "bumper sticker." This always gets a laugh, but what does it mean? Something about the fantasies bundled up in automobility, about passive aggressive modes of communication and community. And something about tone and tautology: about how the form of a statement—any statement—adorning a car always risks being tuned out because it is seen immediately for what it is: just a bumper sticker, whether it infuriates, agitates, or sparks a fleeting feeling of solidarity or smug mutual understanding.

The other day I was riding my bike from campus to pick up my daughter from school when I saw a Jeep with an assault rifle bumper sticker on display. It was a simple silhouette, suggesting a specific make but also transmitting a general threat: this person is proud of their gun ownership, carries a gun whenever they can, is quite possibly carrying a gun right now.


This might have been troubling enough, but in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting it was especially chilling. How could this image not conjure the awful, meticulous planning and carrying out of the event which left 58 people dead and over 500 seriously injured? I pedaled alongside this vehicle for several blocks. I thought to myself, how does this person feel okay with broadcasting an advertisement for the technologies of violence that caused so many horrific deaths? We know the answer: they disambiguate, they say that guy in Las Vegas was a "lone wolf." If anything, the situation in Las Vegas can become an argument for more guns, more armed citizens wary and watching for the lone wolves or the terrorists, the common burglars or escaped convicts. Inside the head of gun ownership it must be a paranoid place, always someone out to get you.

But what about this bumper sticker? I was still riding alongside the Jeep, seeing the bumper sticker again at each stop sign. Part of me wanted to attempt to scrape it off the bumper; or, if I had a very thick black Sharpie, maybe I'd just add a bold line as a strikethrough:


Either one of these would have been stupid, not least because if the driver saw me tampering with their bumper sticker, they might have blown me away with their assault rifle. How else is one supposed to interpret the mandate of such a bumper sticker?

So I established that I wouldn't tamper with the bumper sticker itself, but there it was again as we stopped at the end of the next block. The Jeep's windows were tinted, so I couldn't get any sense of the driver, no familiarizing or friendly exchange of glances that might have humanized the moment and made me forget about my minor obsession. Instead, I obsessed. What could one do to destabilize or defuse such a sign? Then I thought, what about juxtaposition? What if I carried around a bunch of assorted, random bumper stickers that could simply be slapped next to these guns? Gun bumper stickers are often displayed in stark isolation, feeding into the very monomania that fuels second amendment fanaticism. So what if the scene were just, well, crowded a little? I imagined reaching into my pocket, peeling off the back of the sticker, and slyly affixing one as I pedaled past the Jeep...then another along the next block.


A rubber ducky here, a pile of rocks there...just the stuff of life surrounding the gun. Because this is what bumper stickers resist more than anything: complicating the picture. Bumper stickers drive at common sense understanding, obvious solutions, affiliations with the right group. So what happens when bumper stickers become less clear? What is an assault rifle that jostles with a plastic toy and some stones? I don't know, but it's surely better than the gun on its own, isn't it? Such a grouping might say something about the nature of coexistence, about affiliations that are less than obvious, amalgams that are less than clear in their function or makeup. It might invite dialogue rather than death dealing.

Of course, it's still their Jeep and they have a gun and so I'll keep my bumper stickers to myself, at least for now.